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San Diego Comic-Con 2020 Analysis

As usual (Although this year was far from usual), I viewed the San Diego Comic-Con’s 2020 edition as an opportunity to get a barometer on the next year in high-profile genre films and television shows, along with pop culture in general. Besides attending the convention in person, I waded through Twitter, online panel recaps, and videos of the various panels to pull together what I found to be the highlights.

Winners

Keanu Fans

Fans of Keanu Reeves had a chance to catch their man a couple of panels, including “Constantine” retrospective and, more-notably, the “Bill & Ted 3” panel.  He was the biggest name on both panels but was generous and one-of-the-guys.  Oh, and he announced writing a 12-issue comic book series about a wandering demigod entitled “BRZRKR.”   Is there any other Hollywood star that you’d rather hang around with?

Kevin Smith

Smith had been trumpeting his focus on producing podcasts since 2007 and, in these challenging times, his early adoption of that medium has continued to pay dividends for his career.  His ‘roadshow’ platform for selling the film “Jay & Silent Bob Reboot” apparently sold 60,000 premium-priced tickets, with the tour ending just before COVID-19 became a thing.  Smith talked up his Netflix “Masters of the Universe” animated series that was probably still a year away and he also talked about “Killroy Was Here,” a low-budget horror anthology that he’d done with some college students.

Doctor Who Fans

There could be worse things for “Doctor Who” fans than the BBC’s multi-platform “Time Lord Victorious” that would be unfolding over a three-month period across comics, novels, audio, and digital mediums.

Star Wars Fans

About as good as it got for “Star Wars” fans this year was the annual publishing panel.  It featured no less than ten authors hawking various tie-in books but was the fan appetite still there while “Star Wars” was in a Disney theatrical film hibernation?  I couldn’t help but think that COVID-19 won’t at least help stir up more interest in publishing efforts than might otherwise be the case.

Star Trek Fans

While the weird live reading of an old “Star Trek: Discovery” script dominated the majority of the ‘main’ “Star Trek” panel, there were still things for devotees to find on the edges of this fandom.  The animated “Lower Decks” program looks interesting and the 30th anniversary celebration of the landmark “Star Trek: The Next Generation” Borg cliffhanger ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ was insightful.

Walking Dead Fans

Image Comics announced in July 2020 that it will be republishing the full run of “The Walking Dead” in full color (it had originally been produced in black-and-white).  How could fans of that series not double dip?

Panel Lines

The absence of a physical convention meant not having to stand in line.  Notably, people did admit to missing the comradery of the overnight Hall H lines but those people were weird.

Losers

Movie Studio Fans

If you were expecting much in the way of news from Disney, Marvel, or Warner Bros., you were left feeling disappointed.  With the reopening of movie theatres and the related release dates of big name 2020 (and 2021) releases in limbo, it simply wasn’t worth the effort for studios to try to put together promotional planes.  The one exception was Fox’s long-unreleased “New Mutants” adaptation that might finally be coming out in late-August 2020… but would it be any good?

Some of the film filler panels that did show up were decent though.  “Directors on Directing” sounded generic and kind of was but there were plenty of solid anecdotes by Robert Rodriguez (“Alita: Battle Angel”), Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World: Dominion”), and Joseph Kosinski (“Top Gun 2: Maverick”).

Off-Site Attractions

Amongst the biggest losers were any attractions or promotions that would have otherwise been off-site and entirely in-person.  Obviously, none of that was happening this year.

Robotech Fans

There has been an annual “Robotech” panel for years but I’ve never gotten a chance to attend it due to it always having an evening time slot that didn’t work out.  Unfortunately, recordings of the panel have rarely seemed to pop up online.  As such, I’d been looking forward to finally seeing one of these panels and the results were mostly disappointing.  The 25 or so minutes consisted of rapid-fire toy announcements that might have excited some but I was left baffled that the market was robust enough to support this very niche property.  Discussion of the ever-delayed film from Sony Pictures was vague.

Unclear, Ask Later

Disney+ Viewers

“Marvel’s 616” on Disney+ had a fairly polished promotional video, featuring a diverse slate of obscure or off-beat Marvel characters in animated shorts.  Anthologies tend to be a mixed bag but this kind of a concept – being animated – was probably ideal for the current COVID-19 production restrictions.

Meanwhile though, the live-action Marvel shows on Disney+ seem to be, predictably, delayed after the earlier expectation that they’d be on screens by fall of 2020.

Martial Arts Films

I was able to catch the “23rd Annual San Diego Comic-Con Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza,” which, besides promoting an interesting-looking martial arts streaming service, opened featuring a nice interview with Scott Adkins.  Unfortunately, the clip of his new film “The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud” looked like a strange low-budget camp sci-fi thing… maybe it works in the end but at a glance it looked like a risky misfire.

J. Michael Straczynski

He didn’t have his usual entertaining panel in 2020, nor did his new comics studio, AWA (run by former Marvel leaders Axel Alonso and Bill Jemas) appear to have a panel either.  Over on Twitter though, JMS did push his new AWA series “The Resistance.”

Netflix

There was a sporadic presence by Netflix but nothing like in prior years, despite the streamer having new projects continuing to roll out.  We’re still too far out for them to promote the fourth season of “Stranger Things.”  One tidbit that caught my eye around the time of the convention was Netflix announcing that they would be picking up “Cobra Kai” from Youtube, producing Season 3 and premiering Seasons 1 and 2 in late August.

Marvel Comics

Marvel’s Next Big Thing panel focused on the “Empyre” Avenger-Fantastic Four summer cosmic event.  I can’t say that I have been a regular Marvel reader these days and this wasn’t pulling me back in.  The idea seemed to be yet-another galactic war.

Perhaps more troubling was the announcement of a fall “X-Men” crossover event.  When I was a regular collector, I had to wrestle with collecting, perhaps, a dozen $1 issues from various series to read a full event’s story.  A modern fan has much more to contend with – in this case, a “X-Men” reader would need to spend around $4 per issue to collect all 22 (!) issues of the crossover event.  Good luck with that kids.

DC Comics

DC mostly seemed to be saving their announcements and panels of significance for their later-in-August ‘FanDome’ online event.

DC Animated

The most notable news item related to the DC Animated Universe was talk of the landmark “Batman:  A Death in the Family” storyline being adapted such that viewers could interactively choose if Robin lived or died at the end.  The confusing part about this release though was that this particular storyline formed the basis for the first part of the early-produced “Under the Red Hood” animated film.  Just the same, apparently some of the creatives from that film were coming on board this quasi-prequel.

Comics Shrinkage

Diamond Distributors owner Steve Geppi spent the spring in the middle of a COVID-19 crisis, effectively shutting down the comics industry as printers ceased to operate and new product distribution simply wasn’t an option for a short time.  Geppi’s action ended up being the catalyst for DC Comics pushing to have a couple of major U.S. comics shops become the new distributors of their comics.  Rather than lead to the diversity of distributors seen in the 1980s and early 1990s though, DC’s actions seemed to instead call back more toward the disastrous ‘exclusive’ distributor war of the mid-1990s.  This entire situation was quickly-developing and volatile, with the outcome unclear but what remained of the traditional comic book shop business hanging in the balance.

Spawn, Blumhouse, & Todd McFarlane

The “Roast of Todd McFarlane” included some nuggets about the ever-coming “Spawn” movie that McFarlane claimed was closer than ever to fruition but that continued to feel like a mirage.  The trailer for the documentary “Like Hell I Won’t” that Syfy was producing on McFarlane was perhaps the highlight of that panel.

Unfortunately, the Roast organizers only rounded up Marc Silvestri and J. Scott Campbell as guests and the result was pretty poor so far as roasts went.  Each took a few minutes (or less) to take a few digs at Todd and that was really it.

J. Scott had drawn some McFarlane parody art and Todd rightly pointed out that J. Scott was only doing this to show off the art that he’d soon sell for ‘major bucks.’  I’m not sure if the roast was a success if the guy getting roasted has the best line of the night.  Maybe that was allowed.

A later one-on-one panel that focused on McFarlane’s toy company offerings and some “Spawn”-related comic book notes was the stronger panel for fans of his work.

Rob Liefeld

The mischief prince of comics had a new gig on a “G.I. Joe: Snake-Eyes” mini-series for IDW and, as usual, he wasn’t shy in his self-promotion.  Liefeld gave an entertaining, energetic recorded interview that touched on Liefeld’s boyhood 1970s 12” “G.I. Joe” fandom and his teenage comics-reading appreciation of the Larry Hama-led Marvel Comics series.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” had a panel on how to draw a turtle that seemed tailor-made for those stuck at home.

The recent announcement of a female ‘fifth turtle” joining the longtime ‘boys club’ in the ongoing comics seemed in keeping with the times but nevertheless raised questions regarding how this new character would be integrated.

Oddities & Miscellanea

Stan Lee

“Decoding the Kirby/Lee Dynamic” was a decent panel that featured authors of books on either Stan Lee or Jack Kirby.  One book in particular was coming in September 2020 (“True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee”) that looked interesting, covering Stan’s later questionable-business years.  The panel did feel odd for the omission of Mark Evanier, who seems to continue to toil away on what would seemingly be the definitive Jack Kirby biography.

John Carpenter/Storm King Comics

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that John Carpenter had a new original music album coming out in late August.

That said, Carpenter’s direct work wasn’t really mentioned at all during the Carpenter-adjacent Storm King Comics panel.  Storm King featured comics related to Carpenter’s work from the company that had been kicking along now for a few years.  The panel featured Carpenter’s wife Sandy King but, as in the past, didn’t feature Carpenter himself, despite him presumably being in quarantine with his wife.

Dune

As of this writing, the new big-budget “Dune” film adaptation was still on track for a December 2020 release date and it would have likely gotten a promotional push of some sort at Comic-Con under normal circumstances.  As it was though, the film had no dedicated panel and “Dune” fans were instead left to settle for a publishing round-up panel.  New editions of the “Dune” book series were mentioned on this panel, as well as a prequel book trilogy.  There were also plans for a comic book series and, in a first, a scene-by-scene set of graphic novel adaptations of the original “Dune” book.

Miracleman

Not a dang thing has been mentioned about Neil Gaiman’s continuation of his work on this series.

Jeff Smith

While there weren’t any notable product announcements from the “Bone” creator, Jeff Smith signed items and sketched in a livestream for fans over the weekend.

1970s Comics Creators

Representation of Bronze-age creators was limited amongst the official Comic Con @ Home offerings but Mark Evanier had recently started a Youtube channel where a number of notable names from the 1970s-1990s had been appearing for lengthy interviews and fan interactions.

Russo Brothers

Around the time of the convention, the Russo Brothers gave an interview to IGN that hinted at their ultimate goal of doing a “Secret Wars” film adaptation.  Needless to say, that notion made fans buzz.  If there was a concept that might one-up the “Infinity” films on the big screen, this might be it… but, for now, it remains a fanboy daydream.

EC at 75

I’m not going to quibble here but it appeared that Comic-Con celebrated EC’s 75th anniversary two years in a row.  The main subject this time was “The History of EC Comics” book by Grant Greissman that Taschen was publishing in October of 2020.

Artists Editions

One of the ‘pleasant surprise’ panel moments was Jim Lee making an unexpected drop-in to the IDW Artist Editions panel.  The panel had already featured Lee’s longtime inker, Scott Williams, to discuss the upcoming release of an oversized collection of original art from Lee’s “X-Men” days.  It is rare when Lee talks about this chapter in his life, since it was relatively brief (and early) in his career, with him having spent most of the 1990s on his creator-owned Wildstorm and then the 2000s with DC Comics.  That said, he talked fondly about the “X-Men” days.

Terry Moore

I’ve always found Moore’s off-beat self-published work to be interesting and he’s annually had a well-attended spotlight panel.  This year’s panel amounted to him monologuing at home and the result was decent, giving some insights into his recent and future plans.

One thing that Moore mentioned that stuck with me also might do a good job of summarizing his work.  He said that when creating something you should not hold back anything, since you might not ever have a second chance to use it.  That philosophy explains the ‘kitchen sink’ approach to his own work.

Protestors

This category could have taken on a whole new meaning this year if there had actually been a ‘real’ convention in San Diego, as protests in the past had typically been of a politically conservative nature.  This year, the convention would have been taking place during a time of regular social justice protests in cities throughout the U.S.   As it was though, we’d have to wait until next year (or beyond) to see which causes were present around the convention center.

Troma

Normally a notable panel that I like to check in on, Troma had no real virtual offering this year, although a fan did post on Youtube a recording of last year’s 45th anniversary panel and, obviously, that was worth checking out.  Online during the convention, Troma was pushing with streaming video service and the early-August ‘Troma-Dance’ film festival.

Cosplay

People did try to get attention both online and in person outside the empty San Diego Convention Center, notably a not-quite-Deadpool posting to social media from the barren sidewalk in front of the convention hall.  The annual masquerade contest did occur, albeit online and from individuals’ homes.

Television Domination

In contrast to movies being nearly frozen due to the lack of theatrical exhibition, television could continue to chug along until they run out of new products.  With animation offering a safe production workaround in some cases, television might face some COVID-19 hardships but it’ll certainly fare better than movies.  The panel representation, while modest for television, still easily outnumbered and outperformed the movie offerings. 

Dealer Sales & Observations

If you were a dealer who relied only on in-person sales at the convention, this year was your worst nightmare.  That said, if you had an online sales capability, you might actually be doing better than normal (for now, while people have cash coming in from government relief programs, etc.).  Anecdotally, I witnessed vintage toy sales drawing higher prices since the pandemic started – people seem to be stir crazy and willing to buy things to entertain themselves in lockdown.

Todd McFarlane touched on this point during one of his panels, while discussing toy sales actually having a bit of a COVID-19 boom.  Specific to the convention, he pointed out the case of someone who might have planned to come to San Diego from North Dakota, who might have budgeted to spend $1,500 for airfare/hotel/admission/food/Uber, etc. on their trip.   With that trip cancelled, that same person might end up spending some portion of their travel budget instead on toy purchases made online.

The “Action Figure Insider – 15 Years of Talking About Toys” panel had a number of toy company executives talking about recent trends that seemed to back up McFarlane’s point.  In their cases, online sales had been strong during the lockdown and even the re-opening of stores has gone well for toy sales too.

Mystery Boxes

They’re still around.  An example was former Comic-Con dealer Mile High Comics pushing mystery bundles of comics for sale as a sort of lockdown/COVID-19 ‘care pack.’  I continue to find these products perplexing but obviously many fans like the mystery and potential for exploration that random packages of loot might bring.

The ‘New’ Zombies

Our annual hunt for the thing that would replace zombies as a monster flavor of the moment had perhaps come full circle with zombies kind of being relevant again!  Of note related to the convention, Mel’s son Max Brooks, of “World War Z” fame showed up on a science-y panel entitled “Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the Next Big Outbreak.”

Conclusions

The convention in 2020 was not at all typical given the COVID-19 pandemic effectively cancelling the ‘normal’ convention as fans know and love it.  That said, the online access to panels that the convention had teased but seemingly abandoned finally happened after a decade of waiting.  Hopefully some sort of increased online access was an option in the future.

In the past, following the convention online meant that you couldn’t see most panels real-time but you could get a real-time sense for the immediate big talkers from the convention.  This year had an almost opposite situation.  The panels were available but much of the online buzz was more of the lamenting kind, as there was a lack of bombshell news to chatter about or dissect.  The biggest suggestion that I’d have for future online panels would be to leverage the experience gained from this year to offer at least some interactive ‘live’ panels.’

In the end, the convention generated nowhere near the ‘buzz’ or attention that it might have otherwise generated during a ‘normal’ year.  That fact was largely because of the lack of any big Hollywood project promotion.  Overlooked in fixating on attention for the movie and television panels was the fact that the publishing-related panels did quite well in terms of online viewers seeing creators that they might not otherwise see.

Most movies and television projects have never needed the attention that publishing might require anyway.  On that front, comics producers remained oddly upbeat around the time of the convention.

Some pointed out that comics gained wide popularity as a cheap entertainment medium during the Great Depression.  The format will likely change – periodical comics are no longer ‘cheap’ but thicker trade paperback collections or graphic novels can offer a certain value – but we remain a very visual-heavy culture.  Stories from new voices that wouldn’t get access to a $200m film budget can learn to draw and those voices will find ways to make connections to readers.

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